Birmingham Stage Company has built up a strong reputation for its Christmas shows but this year’s festive extravaganza is arguably its most ambitious yet – and it’s coming to a car park near you!
The company, set up in Birmingham 28 years ago, has developed its first car park Christmas show to ensure audiences can indulge in family fun in safety. Horrible Christmas - based on Terry Deary’s book from the Horrible Histories series - will be performed on a portable stage and giant screens with audiences sitting in their own cars and sound streamed direct onto their dashboard. And the idea is proving to be so popular that most of the dates have already sold out. The model was trialed by Birmingham Stage Company, working with Coalition Agency, over the summer when it toured another of its Horrible History shows, Barmy Britain, to car parks and racecourses in front of huge - but socially distanced audiences.
BSC actor/manager Neal Foster was eager to try the experiment, although he is the first to admit he wasn’t sure people would want to sit in their cars to watch a show.
“We’ve played Barmy Britain outside before but never like this and I had no feel for how a show being watched in a car would work. But it really does. What happens is you drive into the car park and park. You are looking at the stage which is actually a lorry cleverly disguised as a stage. There’s a huge video screen so you have a very clear view of the action and the sound comes directly through to your car. We did a dry run for all of our office staff the day before our opening for Barmy Britain and they were all incredibly positive and said it works fantastically well – you can hear clearly; you can see clearly."
“And what we found was that there are some advantages when you are seeing a play with your children. When you’re in the theatre you might want your child to be quiet so they don’t disturb anyone but when they are just sitting in a car with you they can talk as much as they like, ask you questions, join in, they can eat as many sweets or crisp packets as they like. So, the experience of sitting in a car was in some ways easier.”
The tour was so successful BSC and Coalition Agency decided to tour a festive show – and the company had just the production – Horrible Christmas.
“The story was originally written by Terry Deary, the genius who has written all of the Horrible Histories books, and it’s just perfect for us to stage this year because it’s about a boy who’s trying to save Christmas,” says Neal. Sidney Claus is trying to destroy Christmas forever because he hates Christmas. He’s got a magic time machine and keeps going back in time to the pivotal moments that created Christmas as we know it today to try and destroy it. This young boy, Watson Williams, teams up with Shirley Holmes and they keep following Sidney Claus back in time to stop him”.
Horrible Christmas is a tried and tested production which BSC has been performing at different venues for the past seven years. Although the production is being marketed under the banner of Car Park Panto, it is definitely a Christmas show rather than a pantomime. Horrible Christmas had a track record of being very successful,” says Neal. “And, aside from all the jokes and the fun you would expect from Horrible Histories, the show teaches you why Christmas is celebrated in the way it is today."
“One of the reasons why Horrible Histories is so successful is because they are full of things you didn’t know. So, for example, you just take it for granted that you eat turkey and that you give to charity and get your family together and give presents at Christmas, but all of this happens for a historical reason.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic and regional lockdowns making everyone uncertain of their plans for the festive season this year, the show feels particularly apt says Neal.
“Because this boy is trying to save Christmas it feels so much of today. We are dealing with a time when we are all wondering whether there will be Christmas or whether it will be banned."
“I’m hoping that when people drive home after watching Horrible Christmas, they will think about how precious Christmas is and they can reflect on how great it is that we can still celebrate.COVID-19 is not only affecting the way audiences can view the show – it will also mean the cast have to follow stringent measures to remain safe. The cast of 12 are forming a bubble – we will be all together for the five weeks that we are rehearsing and performing,” Neal explains.
“We are travelling around on a big tour bus like rock stars - but not quite as glamorous. We are having to be extra cautious so we are creating an environment where we will never go into a restaurant or a pub or buy a paper from a newsagent. We will be totally self-isolating - everything will be brought to us and we won’t be mixing with anyone except each other.”
And with the tour running from December 11 to January 3 that also means the cast will also celebrate Christmas and New Year together.
“On Christmas Day we will all be staying together; no-one will be going home to their families in order to maintain the bubble. Christmas will be different for us but hopefully it will be great fun. I’ve made great efforts to make sure that I have got the loveliest people together so that we can all have a great time together because morale and company spirit will be more essential than ever.
“And everyone is prepared to do it. Theatre and acting is on the brink of total collapse so everyone is delighted to be part of this event which is one of the biggest theatre shows happening in the country this Christmas.”
BSC has premiered hugely successful productions including Roald Dahl classics The Witches and George’s Marvellous Medicine, David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and Billionaire Boy and a host of Horrible Histories shows. Its Christmas shows have always been a special date in the diary, so Neal was keen to ensure festive fare this year despite all the difficulties.
“Christmas is often the first time children experience theatre and for many it’s the only time they go to a theatre, so it felt very important that there is a Christmas show available. The fact that we have sold out most of the shows means at least a couple of thousand people in each of the places we visit will be able to see a Christmas show. It’s part of the ecology of theatre but also, for a lot of people, it’s part of what makes Christmas special. You have the turkey, the family dinner, and you see the Christmas show and, without that, for a lot of families Christmas won’t be the same.”
With coronavirus restrictions changing all the time, does Neal have any worries the show may not happen?
“Because there’s no risk to the cast or the public there shouldn’t be a need for this show to be cancelled,” he says. “It’s only one family that comes in a car: they leave their front door, get in the car and drive to the venue, watch the show and then go home, so there’s no interaction with anyone else.
“There shouldn’t be a reason why this isn’t feasible even in the strictest of lockdowns, so we are doing it on the basis that we should be able to go ahead whatever the circumstances. But if we can’t go ahead for any reason then everyone gets a refund and we move on to the next city.”
With his Horrible Histories hat on, Neal is sure 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic will one day become part of the story.
“Because all of Horrible Histories are concerned with the story of the human species to some degree it’s a very good way of putting perspective on what we are going through. So, the fact that Horrible Christmas is about saving Christmas means that in years to come there may be a version of Horrible Christmas which talks about how we saved Christmas in 2020 when everyone thought Christmas might be cancelled."
“This moment in time will be studied in the future and, just as we now look back at the 1918 Spanish Flu, we will look back on this pandemic as history and tell stories about what happened. And that is what theatre is all about – telling stories.”
Tickets & T&C’s are available at carparkparty.com.
Friday 11th December - Chelmsford City Racecourse (4:30pm and 7pm)
Saturday 12th December – IWM Duxford (2pm and 5pm)
Sunday 13th December - Newark Showground (11am, 2pm and 5pm)
Monday 14th December – Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton (4.30pm and 7pm)
Tuesday 15th December – Ricoh Arena, Coventry (4.30pm and 7pm)
Friday 18th December - Exeter Racecourse (4:30pm and 7pm)
Saturday 19th December – Bristol Airport (2pm and 5pm)
Sunday 20th December - Cardiff Airport (2pm and 5pm)
Monday 21st December – Cheltenham Racecourse (2pm and 5pm)
Tuesday 22nd December – The Royal Bath & West Showground (2pm and 5pm)
Wednesday 23rd December - Newbury Racecourse (11am, 2pm and 5pm)
Thursday 24th December – Knebworth House, Hertfordshire (11am, 2pm and 5pm)
Saturday 26th December – AJ Bell Stadium, Manchester (2pm and 5pm)
Sunday 27th December - AJ Bell Stadium, Manchester (11am, 2pm and 5pm)
Monday 28th December – Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool (2pm and 5pm)
Tuesday 29th December – Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough (2pm and 5pm)
Wednesday 30th December – Edinburgh Airport (2pm and 5pm)
Thursday 31st December – Edinburgh Airport (11am, 2pm & 5pm)
Saturday 2nd January – Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire (2pm and 5pm)
Sunday 3rd January – Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire (11am, 2pm and 5pm)